The days are surely coming, says the Holy One, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; who shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “God is our righteousness.”
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Human One coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the realm of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Human One.”
Will you pray with me? Holy One, you make all things new. You bring about glad surprises and fulfill joyful hopes. Give us grace to recognise the signs of your presence among us, today, at Christmas, and always. In all your names, amen.
One of the most common complaints about Christmas that I hear is that the shopping season starts too early! It is out of hand, I think, when the stores have Halloween decorations and Christmas stockings up at the same time! When I go into DollaRama and see the stockings, even though my thoughts are more on pumpkins and candy corn, I know that Christmas is right around the corner. Those stockings (and candy, and trees and wrapping paper and ribbons and cards and…) are a sign of the coming of Christmas, as surely as the leaves on the fig tree are a sign of the coming of God’s realm.
There’s a difference, however. We know exactly when Christmas will come. Christmas Eve is December 24 and Christmas Day is the 25th. Some people celebrate more on the 24th and some on the 25th, but those are the two days when we can count on it being Christmas.
Some things that we wait for are much less certain, although we know they will eventually arrive, like the next bus or the server with our dinner. Sometimes we don’t know if the things we are waiting for will ever show up—but we wait with hope--the partner we will spend the rest of our lives with, a cure and vaccine for HIV/AIDS.
Waiting. It’s probably the hardest thing for me to do. I am not really a patient person. I want to do things now, and have results immediately. I have probably seen too many movies, with their editing of time so that it seems to take just ten minutes to bake a cake and two hours for a child to grow up. One of the books I am currently reading is about patience…how to cultivate it, how to cherish the moment that is, and have the faith and confidence that events will unfold exactly as they are meant to.
This is the task of Advent—waiting, with faithfulness, hope, love, and joy for the arrival of Emmanuel—God with us. It’s harder, in some ways, than the waiting of Lent, even though Advent is shorter. Advent mostly takes place in growing darkness—the days are getting shorter, until just before Christmas, so it is gloomy. Lent is in the spring, as the days grow longer and lighter, trees begin to bud and leaf out, tulips and daffodils begin to push up from the ground—it’s easy to see the hope and anticipate the joy.
It’s not as simple in December, is it? Besides the darkness and gloom, there’s the pressure modern culture has created around the holidays—Christmas and New Year’s. Everyone is supposed to have parties and go to parties, to dress nicely, to bake and cook (even if they usually don’t), to give the perfect gift to everyone, to get along with family they would prefer not to ever see, to generally live a perfect life for a couple weeks.
I enjoy parties as much as most people, I love Christmas cooking—as you can tell—I like to give people gifts they can enjoy and use…but somehow, I remember a difference when I was young, and certainly the holidays are described differently in the books of one and two hundred years ago. I don’t mean only Dickens and his Christmas Carol, when Christmas was a family gathering, a big dinner, and games after—sort of like our Thanksgiving, with the addition of a church service. But when you read Jane Austen, for example, or the diaries of Samuel Pepys, or the laws regulating Christmas—there’s much more about food and drink and gatherings of family and friends, and very little about gifts or clothing. It seems people cooked a special meal—but not one beyond their means; and maybe added a new dress, or spruced up an old one; and rather than two weeks of parties and feasting, were considered lucky to have Christmas Day itself off.
I’m not saying we should go back to those days—those were also the days of no unions, of child labour, of no income support, of poor health for most people. But perhaps the attitude is one we could regain. Rather than a huge feast of things we aren’t sure we want to eat, with people we aren’t sure we want to be with, giving them things we aren’t sure they will like—perhaps we could gather with the ones we love, sharing a feast of simple good food, and gifts of meaning. And we wouldn’t have to change a thing, except our attitude.
Patience is a virtue, we are told. Perhaps if we could be more patient, allow each day to have its own message, we would find more in those days. If a day simply becomes one more to check off on the calendar in the rush to Christmas, we lose something—the grace and space of that day. Take each day on its own terms, including Christmas, knowing it will come in its time and offer its gifts. Take the time to immerse yourself in that day, to drink in its message and sense and feeling, before you move on to the next day.
An Advent calendar works that way. Each day, one window or door is opened; each day, one chocolate is revealed, or one small toy, or one picture or one Bible verse. You don’t get all the chocolates at once; you don’t get the whole story all at once. Bit by bit, over time, it is revealed.
That is, ideally, how to live this time of Advent. We know Christmas is coming. We can see the signs, like leaves on a fig tree. But we will wait for it patiently, knowing it will come in the fullness of time.
But Advent is also about preparation. Yes, we prepare our homes, we shop for gifts, we read the stories of John the Baptist and Mary and Joseph, we bake and cook…but we also prepare our hearts. When it comes down to it, we are preparing our hearts for that one day, for Christmas Day—when Christ was born, when our God came to earth and was born as one of us. As we wait, we prepare. We do not simply sit—we wait actively through our preparation. And it’s about more than the decorations, lovely as they are; it’s about more than the food, good as it is; it’s about more than the gifts, as touching or needed as they may be.
Think of Mary—she waits, and yet she is preparing, mentally and spiritually and physically, for this birth.
What are we waiting for in our lives, in the world? Some things are obvious—world peace, an end to hunger. Today, World AIDS Sunday, we lift up the wait for and the work towards a cure for HIV/AIDS. We wait, but we do not sit idly while we wait. We support organisations that are working on vaccines and cure and treatments; we remember the ones we have lost—too many! We teach prevention and safer sex practices, we offer resources to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS. We do not simply wait for the answers to be handed to us on a platter.
Waiting. It’s difficult—few of us are as patient as we should be—but wait we must. But we can also act as we wait—prepare our hearts, our world, as we wait—for peace, for a cure for HIV/AIDS, for an end to hunger and poverty—for Christmas and the coming of the Christ child. In all God’s names, amen.